“Hello Pog,” her voice is cheerful but brittle and it wakes me. We have not spoken in nearly a year. This Sunday morning we were sleeping in – me and him and the dogs and the cats piled up on the bed. The phone rings. The answerphone picks up and its her. Just the sound of her voice Mum. Just the words. Just the tone. The cheery tone. The expectation that all will be fine. I am back there.
6am. The alarm. Because its Saturday and that’s the day I go. And its November. That means the Autumn Internationals and seven shades of repugnant middle class manhood will be on the train back from the prison. It goes right through Twickenham. The 2.54 is what I need to be on to miss the drunks and the gropers and the hooray arsewipes. That means a morning visit. Any later and I’m screwed. Its Saturday; November, drizzle and mist.
Coffee and a walk in the gathering light to the dog park with Robbie. Then the collection of all the bits. Make sure I have money for her. Books. Passport, check visit time. Bag of change. Onto the Cally at 7.30. Usually from the bus stop here on a work day I see the vans coming down from the prison. High windows and the person inside terrified or cocky or screaming or pissing themselves, but either way not coming out of that van until they are once again behind a gate, a secure door. Out of a cage and into a cage. That’s how it goes. I want to wave at the van. I don’t. I do try to smile. I think “If I am looking out of that window and this is my one sight of the city this year or maybe for many years I’d like to see someone smile at me”. I am naïve enough to think that matters. Its meaningless. It doesn’t matter. Except that it might.
For the guys in the vans on the Cally, travelling from Pentonville to a London court, its likely to be better than for Grace. When she is in court for a hearing, the day starts at 6am and she’s loaded in the van at 6.30am. Locked into the cage and then a two or three hour journey around the prisons to pick up men and women headed for various courts. If she needs to piss, she pisses in a bag that she holds around her crotch. The wee solidifies and she carries it out with her into the prison or the court. But she tries not to piss, because its impossible to piss clean despite the claims of the product and she’s wearing her suit. Besides all that she has a screw of tobacco and some paper kept dry in a crisp packet inside her.
There are no vans from the prison on a Saturday, no one to smile at. Just early morning traffic and wet London.
Half an hour later I’m getting off by the National theatre and walking down to Waterloo. I don’t have to do it this way. I could get off by the station. But I like that last look at the London I think I’m part of, or want to feel part of – the aspirational, noodle eating, coffee swilling, arty, cosmopolitan London – before I leave it. At the station I give up on not eating and buy a bagel. With advocado. And bacon. And a latte. Fuck it.
I have two choices. The train to Staines and a taxi or the train to Ashford and a walk. Today I choose the latter. That way I don’t have to talk to the cab driver. I don’t have to talk to anyone. Until I get down the path to HMP Bronzefield
Both me and the Gardener – her partner – visit her every week. We coordinate it. We both send her money, books, clothes. She calls one of us every night and after she has called we call each other and talk about how she is. I write – and so does he. She is the centre of our world in a way that would delight her. Thoughts of her fill pretty much my whole day. I open her letters now whereas for years I have not. She sends long letters. Always has. Long demonding letters. I read them. They are filled with bitterness and resentment and delusion, punctuated by demands. She is “a political prisoner”. She is there simply because she “lives a different kind of life”. You’ve got to give her credit. Setting fire to people’s homes is a different kind of life, but I’m fucked if it makes you a political prisoner.
Before she went inside I knew some things about prison but not all. I knew for example that prisons were places used to protect society from people who are dangerous. I knew that prison wasn’t nice. As a liberal, I knew that prisons were “failing”. I knew that prisons were “squalid”. As a person working in public policy I knew that prisons were necessary and that we could make them better places. I believed that the system while guilty of many things could deliver a better result. I knew that I made some contribution to that. I think I felt that having made that tiny contribution – a conference speech here, an “innovative” funding bid there – I was immune from it. It was abstract. It happened to other people. When it happened to me – to us – it changed everything.
How can I explain to you what it is like when someone goes into prison? Despite what I knew from my work I know I did not understand this properly until it happened. It is like a death. You cannot access, cannot touch, cannot help, cannot contact, cannot see the person you care about . They are taken away – out of your world and put somewhere entirely unrecognisable. You do not know where they are. You cannot visualise their circumstances unless you’ve been there yourself. The fear and the grief and the helplessness overwhelm. For me there was a profound feeling of failure and responsibility.
The night she was first inside I dreamed it was me. The locked door is a sleep I can’t resist. I have the light I can’t control and the walls with graffiti; the smell of sick and disinfectant and the coppery blood tones in the background. I hear the swimming pool noise of prison. Loud and indistinct voices. Lacking originality I have the walls close in too. I wake when they touch me. It is not me though and I wake scared and guilty. Even now I am stealing from her. This is not about me. This is not happening to me. It is my job to support her.
On the train I rehearse things to talk about. She’s been on remand a year and I have visited every week. I have nothing really to talk about. Of course I could ask her why she did it. But I am trying very very hard to believe she didn’t. She will only say she didn’t. I am frightened to challenge her. So yes, I rehearse. She has no interest in politics. Books yes – but only ones she likes. I read trash she tells me. My taste is rather “common”. She has no interest in my life and none in the work I do. My personal relationships are a familiar stomping ground for her and she hasn’t been admitted there for many years. She won’t be now if I can avoid it. But sadness about where she is and compassion and huge grief have weakened my defences.
Grief. How dare I talk about grief when she is the one locked up? How can I think of myself when it is her who is in that terrible place, in that terrible situation and I have failed to do anything. She rings me. She rings me and tells me I have to do something. She cannot take it anymore. She “didn’t do anything wrong”. Not at all. She cannot be in prison any longer. She will die. And yet there is nothing I can do – bar going over and over her legal papers, over and over the case. We’re not at trial yet but the papers pile up. The charges run to 15 pages as each count of arson is “with intent to endanger life” and “careless as to whether life is endangered”. The jury will decide which it is. What use am I? Yet I must fix it.
Going over and over the case is what every visit starts with. Has she heard from the brief? Have I heard from the brief? What are the latest court dates – who does she need me to talk to, what do I need to find out? After that we’ll talk about all the different permutations of trial and sentence, the reports that might lead to this or that outcome. But as time goes by there is less and less of this to talk about until the trial itself some six months later. Again until you experience the system you can’t understand the impact of its grindingly slow pace. The required unquestioning acceptance of its delays and futile processes. Most visits we have this conversation with no spirit. We both recognise the futility of most of it. But we have this because until she is sentenced there must be some hope and we must not give up.
Most often then we drift into talking about the past. It is what we have in common. Then and now. There is nothing in between. . We reinforce the things that connect us. The language. The memories. Or rather her memories. In that “Dad is dead and you never knew him” remains a constant. She knew him. She has something complete. I listen to her memories and they become mine. But even when I was there, I defer. I allow her memories to dominate. Her constructions, view. She can’t be challenged. I am not allowed to challenge her. Her world view can’t be changed. She does not tell me this, but she once did. Or you did. And I am well trained.
All these years Mum, all these years we did that. We protected her. We held her differently – to different standards. Bad things were ok for her. She could do things and there was no censure – selling your jewellery, stealing money, attacking people, attacking you and me. When she did these things – set the fires – you know what my first reaction was? Well yes, but that’s my Grace. Its different. I think even if she had murdered someone – which she effectively did if you think about it – that would be my first reaction. So I have to believe her not guilty and I have to believe what she says even though she lies about everything. That is my Grace. I hold up her right to lie like it is some kind of fucking suffrage.
I have my back up subjects. The dog. The weather. What she has done this week. Who she has fallen out with. The horrors of (her) prison life and her utter hatred of the people she is in prison with is where we will always end up. Not the woman who killed the man by choking him with a sock she pushed down his throat with a dinner fork. Not those kinds of people. They are of interest to her. She almost admires them – as much as she admires anyone who is not her. But the regular ordinary women caught up in the system. She calls them thickos and mongs and “ESN”. Over the years as she finds herself at home in prison and later in the secure hospital, I come to understand that she collects them. The “thickos” and “mongs” to feed her. In return she gives them titbits of charm until she needs what they give her no more, having found another or become displeased. But the standouts. The torturers and murderers. These are her prizes. Perhaps I am being unfair and its simply the transactions of someone surviving the system? I cannot judge. I must not judge.
As the train pulls into Ashford I see its greyer here than central London. There is a wet walk down from the station past the rows of dowdy suburban houses and the costume shop. The costume shop always amuses me. Each week I pass there’s something new – a clown, a nurse, a Sweet Charity call girl. Once a sinister chinaman with a stick on moustache and a wide coolie hat . I like the idea of a costumiers outside a prison. It seems like the start of an Ealing comedy.
I turn right down the road to the prison. I can see it. Yellow brick walls. Grey metal. But before I get there its the visitor centre. Let me explain what a visitor centre is like Mum. Its quite a thing.
The visitor centre sits outside the prison grounds. Its purpose built. Its a place for families – and particularly those with children. There are toys in one corner, and there are toilets and a coffee machine. Its meant to be staffed. You know, they’ll be a person there who helps families who are struggling. Someone for people to talk to. We should wait here before we go into the prison. Its more humane and altogether nicer to wait in a place that’s purpose built to make visiting easier than it is to just sit in the prison reception. It’s a great idea.
But that’s not how it works. How it works is this. You get to the visitor centre. The first thing you see is the drugs amnesty bin. This is where, doubting your decision to bring an eighth in for Janice , you dump your stash. I’ve never seen anyone use it, but then I guess I wouldn’t. First off its what they call “discretely located” in the middle of the doorway with an enormous fuck off notice above saying DRUGS . The second reason is that in over a year of visiting this place I have never seen another visitor here. I mean not once. And that’s because the visitors centre isn’t really used for anything other than the private operator of the prison being able to claim they have one. This purpose built modern, heated, furnished building is never used. Except that this is where you sign in. That’s it. You say your name, show your passport and you get ticked off a list. You can use the loo if you want. By the smell you’d say that’s the major purpose of the place. There’s a little coffee bar, but its never opened. There are piles of old copies of the Daily Express, Metro and Inside Time. (Admittedly this is better than the rural prison I visit her at later in her sentence where the main reading offered by twin setted lady volunteers in the visit waiting room are “Horse and Hound” “Country Homes and Gardens” and “Tatler”)
As soon as you’ve checked in you leave the visitor centre and walk the 20 or 30 yards to the prison reception. You have to. Because you’re not officially there till you’re checked in there. Be late and the amount you’re late will be knocked off your visit or you just won’t get in. Be later than everyone else but still on time and you’ll wait to half way through the last hour of visits and get just half an hour of your allotted time.
I walk past the visitor’s carpark, past the young guard playing fetch with the drug dog on the lawn in front of the nick. From here the place looks like an out of town business unit. It’s a private prison you see, all fur coat. There’s a glass fronted reception area and a doorway split in two. The entrance on the right says “Legal and Professionals”. I go in the left side where it says “Social”. The reception desk is in front of me; there’s a mark on the floor where you’re meant to stand while waiting and one for where you are to stand when being checked in. Behind the desk there’s a great big metal detector – like at an airport, and then to the left of that is an airlock door. Lining the room are banks of lockers. Behind the desk are three officers.
They know me now. Officer number one (Granny Hillbilly) smiles as she takes the slip that I was given at passport control. Number two (the Eggcup because her polyester uniform shirt is tucked so tightly into her trousers her arse looks like a novelty easter gift) makes the paper slip they fasten on my wrist. Number three (KD Lang) is just coming out of the back with mugs of tea. The room is full. Saturday visiting is always like this. On the rows of permanently fixed chairs, kids are doubling up on grandparent’s knees. There’s an overwhelming smell of Vicks and damp clothing; condensation on the windows. Everything in this room is grey except the posters. “Family Day is coming!” says one dated 6 months ago. There’s a picture of an young woman on another. Eyes cast down. Apparently she was caught taking drugs in and she got 18 months. She looks very unhappy. A lesson for us all.
I’m careful to dress well when I come on a visit. Not full make up and glam – but just the way I would for work. Functional, decent, professional (as opposed to amateur) clothes. It makes a difference. I get treated better. I get in earlier. Once when I forgot my ID they still let me in. I’ve never been “randomly” chosen for an extra sniff from the dog. They tend to give me a bigger locker near the top rather than a tiny locker at floor level. At least I think its preferential treatment. It might just be random. It could be I am looking for something to set me apart in a space where I disappear. Something to make me feel I do not belong.
The first time I visited with the Gardener we sat there in the waiting room together. He grumbles about the people there. He says “I don’t like to think of her mixing with this sort of people”. I point out to him that we are this sort of person. And really there are all sorts of people visiting. Lots of families – grandparents with very young children; young young men with prams. Solitary husbands. Mums everywhere. Old hands who know what they’re doing; newbies who have no idea. Talkers and laughers; feetwatchers. People in tears and the silent sitters. There are also volunteer prison visitors who do this for what – pleasure? Duty? Curiosity? I am a white middle aged silent sitter. I am cowed and angry and sad but I keep an even keel. A level head. Any tears will come afterwards when I am walking away and no one can see my face.
Again I check in – show my passport and visit ID. I give the name of the prisoner I am visiting. They give me a locker key. I stow away my coat. There must be nothing on me that could be pulled or used as a weapon. No badges, no scarves, no long necklaces. No combat clothes. No disrespectful t shirts. No hoodies. No clothing that could make you look like a prison officer (I think there’s not enough nylon in the world) . No short skirts or low tops. No torn or ripped jeans. No big boots. No open toe sandals. No hanky – no tissues. If I cry they will give me some public sector blue roll. All my pockets must be empty.
I can take in a plastic bag with change in it for the hatch. That’s it. Everything else goes in the locker.
There isn’t a seat so I lean back on the window. I feel the cold and damp penetrate my jumper. And I wait. People are called in the vague order that they arrive and they go through into the visits hall in groups of 8 or so at about ten minute intervals. I get called in with one of the family groups. The staff lift part of the reception counter and we troop through to get frisked. We go through the metal detector. Round the back there is also a device that looks a lot like an electric chair. Its big and white and has wires coming off it and the word BOSS in big letters. I was told by Eggcup on my last visit that it’s a “bum scanner”. Everytime I see it my arse tightens involuntarily. I see the tiny girl in front of me eying it.. I give her a smile. Big big eyes looking back at me. I tell her it’s a throne and that the queen uses it when she visits. Everyone laughs. The little girl, still holding her nans hand twists round on one foot and giggles.
Next we all go into the airlock. 8 of us in the small Perspex box as the door we came in shuts behind us and we wait for the one in front to open. Everyone breathes in as the door shuts and there is a tension. Being trapped in here is a tiny tiny part of what our visitees experience. We will get out. But still we tense. I feel as I walk in that my whole being belongs, for this short time, to the prison. We exit the airlock into a school corridor – covered with bright artwork and photographs. There’s a couple of weddings celebrated on the walls. Polaroid photographs of brides and grooms stuck onto sugar paper posters. Captions in proper junior school teacher writing tell us this was Derrie and Paul in 2006, and that was Yasmin and Terry in 2009. To the left of me as a I walk down are toilets that we’re sometimes allowed to use and sometimes not depending on which guard is on.
Halfway down the corridor we wait while the drug dog sniffs us. I remember the story Grace told me and smile. She was working on the laundry – getting a big sack of worn knickers into the machine. The alarm goes off and they all have to stay where they are. Next thing she knows two lovely enthusiastic dogs come bounding into the laundry. These are skilled trained professional dogs. These dogs know what’s what. But they are still dogs. And as any dog lover will tell you, dogs love knickers – the dirtier the better. So these two, once they get in the laundry, go straight for the knicker bag and start pulling pair after pair out until the floor is covered in dirty knickers. I say to her but surely you had to clean them up and she tells me no, as the dogs were interested an “ocifer” will be required to examine every single gusset. “probably going to take them best part of the day”. This causes some major joy on the wing.
The dogs pass by us, sniffing our feet and legs. We are instructed that we must stay in line and not move but the little girl wants to stroke the dog. “Afterwards, the guard tells her, “when you come out”. I can see she’s pleased – her Nan less so. There is an unpassable barrier between us and them. Even though we are not prisoners we cannot communicate honestly. There is no trust, yet every minute of everyday we trust them to care for our person. The dogs don’t sit in front of any of us. We is clean. Hooray.
Released from frozen procession we move towards the double doors at the end of the corridor and wait until someone on the other side comes to let us in. I do not know on what this action is predicated, but sometimes it takes seconds and sometimes a quarter of an hour. And that’s time off your visit. We are all impatient which is pointless. There are exigencies that rule prisons of which we know nothing. Even as people intimately connected to people in the prison. Even they do not know why many things happen the way they do. None of us are here to understand, but to do, be and stay. Whistle any of us and we will react. Eggcup, KD and Granny Hillbilly. Less right to disobey than the dogs . There are simply things that are done; everyone linked to this place moves and talks in the way it requires without anyone ever asking if we should or it should. This is a system without thought but with enormous power. It is not just the power of the state either. It is the power of the environment, the power of certain control. Power that knows it cannot be challenged. We are goods. Perhaps also bads. Bentham would be proud.
The doors do open and we are in a sports hall waiting to go through the turnstyle. There are no bars or ropes or apparatus as we called it at Juniors, but if they announced it was “Music and Movement” we would all be trees, blowing in the wild wind, or ships sailing to a new land. If there was a trampoline and they said “bounce” we’d bounce. It’s a big space. Bigger than any prison visit room you’ll ever see on Eastenders. There’s a basketball hoop on one wall and piles of gym mats. Two vending machines. Perhaps 30 small coffee tables each surrounded by institutional chairs – blond wood and stained dralon. The tables are in neat rows but the chairs aren’t evenly spaced. There is one on one side all on its own, a different colour to the others. That’s the prisoner’s chair. At one end there are floor to ceiling windows looking out over a children’s playground. I’ve never seen anyone use it or the doors ever open for a visit, but I bet it looked lovely in the architect’s brochure. Beyond that you can see the paths that link up the houseblocks. Muddy grass banks and gravel. This is where she feeds the crow. This is as much of the world that she inhabits as I will ever see.
In the corner by the window there is the refreshments hatch. Its like a newspaper stand at the station – locks with a simple pull down shutter and opens to reveal 2 smiling ladies and a range of sandwiches, confectionary, fizzy drinks, crisps and plastic cups. There is an overflowing bin on one side and a tray-trolley on the other also filled with wrappers and rubbish. The women here – and they are all women – are local community volunteers. They are like us – civilians inside the system. The moments I spend talking to them feel like stolen time, special. I look them in the eye.
I report to the desk and I’m told which table I am on. The desk in here is staffed by three or four officers. You have to wait for their attention. Like going to the teacher’s table at dinner time, you have to wait for their conversation to end before you say anything. There are forms for visitors to report any incidents of racial harassment or discrimination. You have to ask for a pen before you fill them in, and then pass them to an officer so they can put them in the “confidential post box”. I don’t imagine many get returned. I’m hoping for a table by the window or near the back wall but its really packed today. You can hear properly there. But I’m right by the refreshments hatch and I know its going to be hard to communicate. I also know I can’t dawdle across for tea and more sweets, shortening the visit. Its funny I rush all the way here, wanting to get there in time, so nothing is lost from the visit. When I get here I want it over. I want every little thing to bite into it.
I go to table 4 and sit down. I stare at the door I know she’ll come through. I try not to look at anyone else. This is a secret public place in which the most personal and distressing of conversations must be had. I cannot, must not intrude. Though of course she will, pointing at people, telling me what they’re in for, telling me that so and so is a cunt and “See that one, she’s so thick …”. I will shrink back in my seat, walking the line of engaging and responding and not staring or invading others space. The officers are patrolling the room – some discretely, others – like Godsgift hovering around tables, talking to the female visitors, all jokes and winks and sleaze. I want to say “I’m not here to see you”. I don’t. In here he must be indulged.
Grace walks in like she’s welcoming an audience to her new chat show. She’s grinning and laughing and striding across the room. She waves to a friend. And then she sits down.
The visit begins.